Pepper passed away quietly last Wednesday evening. Thank you all for sending your kind thoughts. The following is a letter from Gloria Grow, the founder of Fauna Foundation, who has been caring for Pepper for almost 15 years, and was with her when she passed away.
We have all known times where we said and meant literally: “I don’t know where to begin.” I have been wanting to write to tell you about what has happened to Pepper. Yet, every time I sat to try to begin over the last two days, I froze. I went numb. And then I would decide to go out and pressure wash. Or water the plants. Or trim some trees. I suppose they are all the healthy “drugs” I use to get some relief from the nearly unbearable pain that I feel at having Pepper change in less than two weeks from a chimp who needed some attention because things weren’t quite right to someone who began to go through the sad, painful and always shocking process of dying.
I was right by her side the night she finally took her last breath. I had been with her since 4 PM that day. I sat gently beside her and we held hands the whole time. When she saw me come into her room, she carried her weary body to eagerly meet me those few seconds sooner than had she waited for me peacefully in her spot. Her greeting was sweet and joyful and filled with the kind of wonder that accompanies all miracles. After nearly 15 years of expressing our love with hard, cold steel between us, finally we could hold each other, groom each other and, when she felt too weak to hold her head up, she could rest it gently on my knee.
We were prepared on Saturday the 19th, or as prepared as you can be. We were going to do her and Binky. Pepper had been having some swelling on one side of her face and periodic bleeding from her nose. She was on anti-biotics and we were very careful to make sure she was getting all her favorite foods and that she was eating. We would anesthetize her so we could closely examine her mouth, nose, and cheek bone, take blood, palpate her abdomen, listen to her heart and give her a complete and good physical in hopes of understanding why she had been “off” and what we could do about it.
We discovered three loose teeth which had to be removed. What should have been routine dental work was when our nightmare began. Pepper started to bleed out. She had had problems when she was intubated and so the breathing tube had to be removed and after a few moments reinserted. That made us very cautious and concerned but not alarmed, yet. It was the profuse bleeding after pulling her teeth, accompanied by gums that were barely pink that caused each of us to look at the other with that sense of dread that accompanies the intuition that “this isn’t good” even before all the medical facts are in.
Pepper was diagnosed as being severely anemic from a blood disorder and in late stage kidney failure. While we were aware she was starting to have kidney function compromise, a very common disease in older female chimps, we did not know how progressed it was. Her blood work showed us a picture we were not happy to see. What it told us was that if Pepper made it through the week, we would be lucky for the time with her.
The week that followed was filled with everyone—human and chimp—making Pepper their priority and major if not only focus. Current and former volunteers visited…as did Allison Argo, Dr. Theo Capaldo, and supporters like Gil and Roz Kaplansky. So many people important in her life and to whom she was so important and who are in touch with us on a nearly daily basis came when they heard the news. Pepper responded to everyone those first few days as if she were the cordial hostess greeting company she whole heartedly welcomed.
Of course my sisters Dawna and Linda and my brother Glen were with her hours on end. She was never alone nor out of the sight of one of the Grows…never. We brought her cherries and small sweet orange teardrop tomatoes, and large leafed, deep green fresh kale…and everything else that was or had become her favorite. We had to hand feed her as she was truly, for most of this past week, unable to hold herself up and eat…she could do only one or the other.
Those moments with her, nourishing her and covering her with blankets, and making certain that her every need was met, was an honor for us that touched the very edges of everything that is sacred. Still, knowing who Pepper was—the most generous, nurturing, kind, maternal, compassionate chimpanzee I have ever known…it did occur to us that she was taking care of us every bit as much as we were taking care of her.
Sue Ellen—her sidekick and chosen sister—kept a vigil. In her own nervous little way, she sat calmly, noting everything we were doing and making certain it met her approval. When she would go for a stroll or to visit others through the bars, we would sometimes close Pepper’s door so that we could go in and tend to her nest with clean blankets and make certain all was well without the threat of Suzie, who was, rightfully, in mega protective mode the whole time.
As for the others, well, I have never ever heard the chimp house so quiet. Nor have I seen them more concerned. They could hear Pepper’s calls–weak, strained and sounding like someone whose energy was draining. They knew…from those communications, from her absence, from their ability to sense what was happening in their world even in the absence of words. At one point the day before Pepper died, Petra, Jethro, Regis and Rachel gathered together in a rather narrow section of the caging that leads them to the open island. It had a good view of Pepper in her favorite spot in the skywalk. Each sat on one of the steps huddled together, not unlike humans do outside the hospital room of someone they love who is dying. They sat there together without words, reassuring each other without words, and acknowledging somehow that we are in this together. We will bear the loss and grieve that person together and we will remember that we do still have each other…our only consolation to losing someone so vital to our family.
My human family, our staff and friends could not have been more loving toward Pepper. Everyone–from the gardeners to maintenance to, of course, all animal staff, spent time with her. And all of us who work in the chimp house also had to make certain that Pepper’s entire chimp family was soothed during this time of pending loss. You would have been as proud of and as grateful for every one of the staff as I am.
Now, frankly, I need to curl up, withdraw, and take peace in the quiet of my mind as it stops trying to make sense of any of this. I will touch as many flowers and trees and plants and dogs and cats as I can to remind my senses that all is not lost, even if right now losing Pepper feels big enough to qualify for all. And I will accept her loss as yet another step toward the inevitable…the day when all the chimps have passed and our vision and the miracle we made happen will reach its end.
During my time of grieving please know that I so appreciate your caring, kind words and reassurances. A dear friend emailed me the day before she left to make the long drive up to visit Pepper. That morning she saw outside her window, over a field that is the edge of a forest, a magnificent double rainbow that emerged as the rain stopped and the sun’s face lit up the sky again. She captured it in a photo which she sent to me and wrote: “Pepper visited today to let us know that the heavens are waiting to embrace her.”
No matter your religious beliefs, your values, or spiritual practice, you certainly believe in good. And, that good is the only thing that matters—a tender heart, wise mind, courageous soul and beautiful face are “all good.” Pepper is now in that place that gives birth to all that is good and welcomes it back when its time on earth has ended. Pepper’s soul is pure good and for that we loved and will always love her. Now we must trust and know that while we will never again hear her voice, watch her laugh, smell her sweet scent…she has left us the gift of her goodness. Please, hold Pepper close to your heart. Learn her lessons and allow her goodness to infuse everything you do….for you, your loved ones, the animals and the earth itself. I will and so, I will always know that she is still with me.